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The Power of Thought Experiments

Stretch your imagination in the company of great minds: Delve into the remarkable tradition of thought experiments.
The Power of Thought Experiments is rated 3.4 out of 5 by 9.
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Rated 1 out of 5 by from Mediocre Lessons in Thought Experiements Having earned a degree in philosophy, I had hoped Dr. Breyer's course would remind me how best to conduct thought experiments; instead, he just gives countless examples with no real takeaways on how to do thought experiments. (for how to do thought experiments, see Stanford's Encyclopedia of Philosophy). This, in itself, wouldn't be bad if the examples provided were well thought out, but they aren't. In fact, this professor's thought experiments and examples come from a woke, left philosophy, which wouldn't be bad if it weren't so lopsided and of poor intellectual capacity. Professor Breyer seems to filter all of his thinking through this ideological lens, which makes his doing philosophy, properly, impossible. He is simply not open minded. Furthermore, his capacity for complex, abstract thought seems rather limited. He is one of those professors you take for an easy A, it seems, provided you share his woke biases. Unfortunately, more and more of these types of academicians seem to be popping up everywhere. Imagine a thought experiment in which your professor is fair, objective, and cares deeply about his craft so much so that he learns everything about it and teaches what he knows with passions and expertise. He is well dressed, provides intelligent examples, uses a complex vocabulary, and knows his subject inside and out. Then imagine Dr. Breyer; He's not this professor but rather a mediocre one at best. It's too bad.
Date published: 2024-07-04
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent material and presentation If there is one thing our modern world struggles with, it's thinking well. A sturdy education in philosophy from kindergarten and all the way up, I'd argue, would improve our world more than anything else. This course is great in pointing out ways to think better, to spot poor thinking, and point out the causes and the phenomena where we all fall into poor thinking and how to overcome them. Start with the lecture on testimony. It's profoundly important for today's world, and how to resolve 'disagreements' in sensible, rational ways, and teh importance of shared concepts of these kinds of thought-traps. There were many poor, negative reviews. It's mind boggling to me how incredibly poor quality fiction-books as an example, can get 70,000 reviews of all 5-stars, and here is an educational, thought-provocative, very important lecture series that could change the world, and hardly anyone cares. Watch it, enjoy it, and apply it. I sure will.
Date published: 2023-11-25
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Human philosophy talks are kind of irrelevant..... Dr. Breyer's "Understanding the Dark Side of Human Nature, was a great lecture. So, with that in mind I watched this lecture. While Dr. Breyer is a good speaker and presenter this one falls flat. Sophomore jinx shall I say. The Power of Thought Experiments lecture was very repetitive per segment. Leaving one scratching their head saying, "this isn't really saying anything at all. While I realize it took two years to produce this lecture and the time spent it would been better to tackling something more intriguing. Human philosophy talks are kind of irrelevant in the modern age knowing what we know now about simulation theory. Lets hope if given another chance he will succeed.
Date published: 2023-11-03
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Good intellectual workout I enjoyed each lecture in this series. I thought of many examples to illustrate what the professor presented and discussed them with my friends. The research that was cited opens the door to more thought and contemplation.
Date published: 2023-10-02
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Lots to think about Breyer gave me many new thought experiments to consider, mixed in with some that are quite familiar to anyone who has any interest in psychology, economics, or moral thinking of different kinds. Breyer has a fresh analysis of some of these chestnuts. I am reluctant to point it out but the background animations on constant loop were only a distraction lacking aesthetic appeal and provided no visual relief. If you are considering a choice between the audio or video forms of this lecture, I believe there is no added value in the visual content, so go with audio.
Date published: 2023-08-13
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A course that will broaden your thinking I really enjoyed this course and the thought experiments that make you consider how you'd respond, and then reconsider your initial reaction. Like all online philosophy courses, it's frustrating not to be able to engage with the instructor and offer alternate points of view. In my opinion, philosophy is best done in a group, where concepts and arguments can be discussed. But that was the only frustration with this interesting course. The fact that I wanted to engage is an indication of how thought-provoking the material is.
Date published: 2023-08-04
Rated 5 out of 5 by from WARNING: Be Prepared to Think! Having thoroughly enjoyed Dr. Breyer's "Understanding the Dark Side of Human Nature," I was happy to see another series by him. After finishing the course, I had two reactions: it was more than I hoped for and it seems this is a course for a somewhat limited audience. FULL DISCLOSURE: This is NOT a walk in the park! If you are not prepared to use your mind--a lot!-- to have the patience to fully consider the content and to, at times, suspend belief and preconceived notions, then perhaps this course is not for you. In every lecture Prof. Breyer asks, "What do YOU think?" This is not a rhetorical question and I found myself over-thinking several times. Every "Yes, but . . .," "That's ridiculous . . .," and "What if . . .," threw me off track and I had to do a mental rewind and start over. At the end of every lecture I was elated at letting my mind wander (and wonder) but boy, was I tired (in a good way)! Perhaps you may wonder what's the use of thought experiments in the "real world?" Consider this: everything we hold to be of value had at its core a thought experiment. Think (there's that word again!) about it in your own life. How many of your "flights of fancy" led to something from which you ultimately benefited? It certainly happened to DaVinci, Einstein, Edison--and the list goes on. If you are considering this course, my advice is not to rely on reviews (including mine) but to take a look at the Course Guidebook. See what you're in for. I believe that if you are willing to put in the time and mental effort required to fully appreciate the various thought experiments presented, you will be amply rewarded. This course has my highest recommendation!
Date published: 2023-07-27
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Unfortunately his first what if is so inane Ridiculous what if question raised in first lecture. This is why I hated philosophy in college. He is a good presenter but this first example made me want to stop listening.
Date published: 2023-06-23
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Thought experiments have been used throughout history by great thinkers to expand our knowledge of ourselves and the world. In this course, you’ll explore fascinating thought experiments on subjects like personal identity and selfhood, special relativity and quantum mechanics, free will and moral responsibility, and what makes a life truly worth living. Join history’s great thinkers in The Power of Thought Experiments for an extraordinary journey into your own mind.


Daniel Breyer

The realm of ethics presents some of the most intriguing thought experiments to challenge our sense of what’s right and wrong, what we should do and what we shouldn’t.


Illinois State University

Daniel Breyer is a Professor of Philosophy at Illinois State University, where he also directs the Religious Studies program. He earned a PhD in Philosophy from Fordham University. He has received many accolades, including the Outstanding University Teacher Award, the highest instructional honor at Illinois State University. His research often explores thought experiments, and his articles have appeared in journals such as Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, Pacific Philosophical Quarterly, and the Journal of Buddhist Ethics.

By This Professor

Understanding the Dark Side of Human Nature
The Power of Thought Experiments
The Power of Thought Experiments


How Thought Experiments Work

01: How Thought Experiments Work

Consider two basic thought experiments, as they allow us to build hypothetical scenarios that stretch our imaginations and yield insights. Observe the power of thought experiments to reveal what is truly important, morally right, or what could or should be. Grasp how thought experiments have both distinct benefits and limitations, and how they stimulate and interact with our intuitions.

25 min
Saving Others or Letting Them Die

02: Saving Others or Letting Them Die

Look first at thought experiments involving the Prevention Principle—whether we are morally obligated to prevent something bad from happening if we can, and if so, if there are limits on this obligation. Then, grapple with scenarios contrasting deliberate killing with letting someone die. See how these problems invite us to think in challenging ways about fundamental moral issues.

29 min
What the Trolley Problem Reveals about You

03: What the Trolley Problem Reveals about You

The Trolley Problem, which Phillippa Foot first discussed in her 1967 paper that involved the two case studies of a trolley driver and a transplant, presents a difficult choice regarding saving lives in a deadly situation. Witness how the scenario raises thorny moral questions, noting that we tend to condone trading one life to save several in some situations while not in other situations. Observe that a seemingly moral choice becomes more complex if we make slight changes to the circumstances, forcing us to evaluate what we value and why.

27 min
Suppose You’re Impartial; Suppose You Care

04: Suppose You’re Impartial; Suppose You Care

Here, look at thought experiments that consider the value of being impartial versus partial, when interacting with others in important ways. Referencing Confucian thought, examine whether it’s morally preferable to treat everyone equally or to care for some more than others. Critically, investigate whether morality, and impartiality itself, may require us to be grounded in partial relationships.

27 min
Unmasking the Hidden Pitfalls of Testimony

05: Unmasking the Hidden Pitfalls of Testimony

Now delve into thought experiments in social epistemology—the study of knowledge in social settings. Think through common strategies we use to deal with minor social disagreements, and what happens when a disagreement is extreme. Then, take account of how testimony is one of our most fundamental sources of knowledge, yet it can be problematic when its credibility is either under- or over-valued.

30 min
Can You Time-Travel and Change the Past?

06: Can You Time-Travel and Change the Past?

The “grandfather paradox” is a thought experiment that obliges us to think rigorously about what traveling back in time would mean. Assuming time travel is possible, come to grips with whether the past could feasibly be changed. In doing so, observe that this problem hinges on what it means to be able to do something, which in turn hinges on factors in the environment or context.

28 min
Paradoxes as Mental Workouts

07: Paradoxes as Mental Workouts

As a lead-in to paradoxical thought experiments, consider the nature of the paradox as a situation that proceeds from seemingly acceptable reasoning to a contradictory or absurd conclusion. Then, wrestle with two classic paradoxes, the “surprise test paradox” and “the stone paradox,” which propose complicated problems and function as powerful tools for teaching and sharpening our thinking.

31 min
What Newcomb’s Paradox Says about Decisions

08: What Newcomb’s Paradox Says about Decisions

“Newcomb’s paradox” is a scenario involving two possible choices where the goal is to make the most profitable choice in the face of equally compelling arguments for each choice. Dig deeply into underlying principles regarding the two choices, looking rigorously at the issues to clarify which is the best choice. Observe what the paradox reveals about two distinct approaches to making a rational decision.

30 min
Stories as Thought Experiments

09: Stories as Thought Experiments

Compare the features of fictional stories and thought experiments with those of actual scientific experiments to see whether we can learn meaningful things about the world through the medium of fiction. Grasp how thought experiments allow us to assess what might happen in given conditions we can’t experimentally produce, allowing us to access conditions of the world we couldn’t otherwise explore.

29 min
Einstein’s Revolutionary Thought Experiments

10: Einstein’s Revolutionary Thought Experiments

Discover how Einstein used thought experiments to work out some of his seminal theories, highlighting his theory of special relativity, which shows how speed affects time and space. Witness how he used one thought experiment in developing the theory, and a second one to explain a critical element of it, the relativity of simultaneity, which illuminates how we perceive time and simultaneous events.

32 min
Galileo’s and Schrödinger’s Thought Experiments

11: Galileo’s and Schrödinger’s Thought Experiments

Encounter some of the most famous thought experiments in the history of science. Among these, learn about Galileo’s thought experiment which challenges Aristotle’s view that the speed of falling bodies is proportional to their weight. Also, investigate Schrödinger’s Cat, his thought experiment which brilliantly demonstrates a serious conceptual problem within quantum mechanics.

33 min
What Makes Identity the Same over Time?

12: What Makes Identity the Same over Time?

Explore the subject of identity by examining how we think about material objects. Using thought experiments from history, look at how we assign identity to physical objects such as ships and chariots. In the process, assess whether we consider parts to make up, or be identical to, a whole; whether a whole exists independent of its parts; and whether, in fact, wholes truly exist at all.

31 min
Mind Swapping and Personal Identity

13: Mind Swapping and Personal Identity

In the first of three lectures on personal identity, study thought experiments that ask us to think deeply about our sense of selfhood. Through thought experiments involving mind/body swapping and teletransportation, investigate how we envision personal identity across time—whether we define our identity by psychological continuity over time or in terms of facts about the biological, bodily self.

28 min
Who Are You after a Brain Transplant?

14: Who Are You after a Brain Transplant?

Zero in further on identity, with thought experiments proposing scenarios where your brain is transplanted into one or more other bodies. Investigate how philosophers use these thought experiments to reveal whether personal identity or physical survival is more important to us, and whether the criteria for personal identity we use is different from what we tend to think it is.

29 min
Who Are You Right Now?

15: Who Are You Right Now?

Using thought experiments from historic Islamic, Jain, and Daoist philosophers, investigate whether we identify the self as necessarily related to the body, or as somehow independent. From there, consider the case of “Otto’s notebook,” a modern thought experiment that asks whether the mind, and, therefore, our practical identity or self, can extend beyond the skin into the external world.

30 min
Exploring the Mysteries of Consciousness

16: Exploring the Mysteries of Consciousness

In approaching the subject of consciousness, examine how we study the human mind, and, particularly, the question of whether objective study of the mind can penetrate or understand subjective experience. Then, study some famous thought experiments that make the case that it can’t. Whether or not we agree with their conclusions, grasp how thought experiments of this kind push the limits of our knowledge.

31 min
When Are You Morally Responsible?

17: When Are You Morally Responsible?

Thought experiments concerning moral responsibility allow us to finely hone our thinking about the conditions under which we’re responsible morally for our actions. Consider scenarios that highlight the traditional view that moral responsibility requires the ability to do otherwise. From there, work through some important thought experiments that convincingly call this view into question.

30 min
How Luck Changes Moral Thought Experiments

18: How Luck Changes Moral Thought Experiments

How do circumstances beyond a person’s control affect their moral responsibility for their actions? Immerse yourself in thought experiments that work with this issue, looking at different scenarios that consider what constitutes genuine or true agency. Also explore Derk Pereboom’s thought experiments on the role of historical factors in assessing personal freedom and responsibility.

31 min
Challenging Whether You Have Free Will

19: Challenging Whether You Have Free Will

Dig deeply into the question of whether our actions and choices result from free will, or if they’re determined by other causes. Study how various thinkers have approached this, with thought experiments that probe the processes and factors involved in making choices. Look into determinism and indeterminism in theories of free will, and whether free will necessitates an indeterministic universe.

32 min
Suppose You’re Immortal. What Do You Value?

20: Suppose You’re Immortal. What Do You Value?

Imagine three scenarios: First, picture hooking up to a machine that can give you any experience you want. Next, consider taking a pill that makes you immortal. Finally, picture your life repeating on an endless loop. What are the implications of having anything you want and living forever? And what perspective does thinking these alternative realities through give you on how to live your life?

26 min
Visit Twin Earth to Explore Meaning

21: Visit Twin Earth to Explore Meaning

Through some famous thought experiments, look at two fundamental aspects of meaning: reference (the object a word refers to) and sense (what a word or thought expresses). By visiting an imaginary “twin Earth,” investigate the roles played in meaning by what we think as well as by aspects of the world itself. Then, consider how we arrive at the meaning of the term “morally right.”

24 min
How Do You Know When You Know Something?

22: How Do You Know When You Know Something?

Study noted thought experiments that grapple with how we define knowing something, as opposed to believing or supposing it. Delve into “Gettier cases,” which challenge the traditional view that knowledge is “justified true belief.” Then, investigate whether knowing something depends on context. Finally, study thought experiments that contrast knowledge with understanding.

33 min
How to Create Civilization from Chaos

23: How to Create Civilization from Chaos

Imagine the “state of nature,” the human world before laws or governments, and weigh philosophers’ views of how to resolve inevitable conflict. Consider the “prisoner’s dilemma,” a problem which highlights the challenge of getting self-interested people to cooperate for their own good. See how thought experiments in political philosophy offer tools and insights for negotiating social harmony.

32 min
Thought Experiments as a Way of Life

24: Thought Experiments as a Way of Life

Conclude the course with a return to ethics. First, look at “dilemma tales,” narratives that present a difficult or agonizing choice. Ponder thought experiments which separate what is morally right from what is just, two things which normally seem to go together. Grasp how we can use thought experiments as a practice to examine our everyday attitudes in-depth and to clarify what we really think.

33 min